A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 11, 2022

Why Even Leaders Are Joining the Great Resignation

Leaders are now quitting their jobs at higher rates than other employees. Some of the reasons are the same as for the rest of the work force: better compensation, more flexibility, greater advancement potential. 

But some of the reasons are unique to leadership: the relentless pressure to manage a rapidly changing workplace, the stress of meeting goals while addressing constant employee turnover, the departure of other leaders placing additional pressure on those remaining - but without significantly enhanced compensation. Turnover of leaders sends a message to the rest of the organization and contributes to additional resignations. Smart organizations recognize the risk and are taking steps to rethink roles, responsibilities and rewards in order to retain those they value. JL

Rani Molla reports in Re/code:

70% of the C-suite are considering quitting. Attrition risk for managers is two times higher than non-managers. Data on management departures found quit rates among managers remained at last year's peak, while those for non-managers declined. The rate of people leaving their jobs at the director level has been growing faster than at those at the entry level. (And) postings for managerial positions are growing at a faster rate than job listings at large. When one manager quits, another is left picking up the slack, which could  lead them to quit. A third of managers who quit in May did so for career advancement. "Managers getting put into management because they’re great technical contributors doesn’t mean they have the skills to manage emotions in difficult times."

The so-called Great Resignation is going strong, and it’s not just for working stiffs anymore. Increasingly, managers are also leaving their jobs for greener pastures.

Data shows that managers are leaving their jobs at elevated levels, and that even though resignation rates for workers overall have declined from their peak, lots of people are still quitting their jobs. The breadth of quits could exacerbate an already tight labor market as quits in one area precipitate quits in another, and this cycle could ensure that the Great Resignation — also known as the Great Reshuffling or Great Reconsideration — won’t stop anytime soon.

Data on management departures comes from a number of sources. People analytics provider Visier found that resignation rates among managers went from 3.8 percent in the first half of 2021 to 5 percent in the first half of 2022, which represents a much bigger jump than for non-managers. Gusto, which provides payroll, benefits, and human resource management software, found quit rates among managers remained at the same peak level in June as they were last year, while those for non-managers have declined. LinkedIn found that the rate of people leaving their jobs at the director level has been growing much faster than at those at the entry level this year. The departure of bosses was also evident on job platform ZipRecruiter, which said job postings for managerial positions are growing at a faster rate than job listings at large, and currently make up 12 percent of job postings, up from 10 percent in June of last year.

To be clear, levels of quits remain high across job types and levels. Data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics this week shows that 2.8 percent of employed people quit their jobs in May. That’s slightly lower than the peak of 3 percent last winter but still very high. In general, looking for a different job has become a bit of a national pastime. The number of people using top job search apps is at an all-time high, according to app marketing intelligence company Apptopia. Lower-paid workers always make up the majority of the workforce and a majority of the quits. As fallout from the pandemic as well as existing trends like an aging workforce continue, however, the composition of the resignations has shifted to include more tenured, higher-paid workers, and, increasingly, those in management roles.

“Resignation rates are creeping up and into ranks where it isn’t a foregone conclusion,” Joseph Fuller, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, who leads its Managing the Future of Work initiative, told Recode. “These are higher-paid workers who presumably have invested a lot in educational credentials, training or building their career at a company. They’re managers, and they’re leaving pretty good circumstances — that should be worrisome to companies.”

Their departures greatly affect the people who work for them and the companies they work for, both of which rely on managers to stabilize things in times of uncertainty. If managers are leaving, their companies’ CEOs will, at least for a while, have to make do without them.

“It’s like the military leaning on the non-commissioned junior officers,” Fuller said. “If all of a sudden the sergeants and generals quit, it doesn’t matter what the general’s big vision is for winning the war, someone has to be down there taking the beaches.”

But at a larger scale, high numbers of bosses quitting could usher even more quits among the rank-and-file workers as well as other managers, making the phenomena of the Great Resignation last even longer.

Why your boss is leaving

Bosses are people, too, and they’re subject to many of the same headwinds that are causing everyone else to quit their jobs, including burnout and the reconsideration of work’s place in their lives. But their reasons for leaving are also ones unique to management, which is tasked with the increasingly difficult task of hiring and retaining workers at a time when people are quitting left and right.

In a survey of managers, the leadership software maker Humu found that retention and hiring were their top two biggest challenges last year. People are continually leaving their jobs for things like better pay, remote work, and self-employment, and it’s management’s responsibility to replace them, which isn’t very easy in this tight labor market.

Managers are also trying to lead their workforce amid unprecedented change — something that’s adding to their strain, since they might not be equipped for it.

“A lot of managers get put into management, not because they’re great people managers but because they’re great technical contributors,” Humu cofounder Jessie Wisdom said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean you have the skills to manage emotions through difficult times and unprecedented levels of burnout and helping your team balance things that they’ve never had to balance.”

She added, “People are going through hard times and, as a manager, you have to help them through that. Part of your job is almost becoming being a therapist.”

A dispersed workforce is also creating new challenges for managers. The vast majority of big corporations are adopting a hybrid model, where employees work both from home and the office. Managing people across locations and trying to shepherd people back to the office who don’t want to go is proving to be a major difficulty for management.

The manager resignations are also a result of lots of opportunity — both professional and personal — elsewhere. A third of managers who quit in May did so for career advancement reasons, compared with just 19 percent in non-management positions, according to data from Gusto. The company also surveyed all types of workers on its platform and found that their No. 1 factor in accepting or declining a job offer is flexibility. Nearly half said that the ability to work from home some or all of the time would be a major or the most important factor in determining whether to accept a job offer in the future. Presumably people in management positions are more likely to have jobs where they can work from home, meaning they’re more likely to actually get that flexibility — either at their current or future job.

Importantly, management, especially executives, are higher paid and thus more financially secure than their charges, so they have more mobility to quit.

“The pressure and the demands on the C-suite continue to be pretty substantial,” Steve Hatfield, Global Future of Work Leader at Deloitte, said. “And the financial position that they’re in is one that would give them the opportunity to think about doing something different.”

It could also be a case of monkey see, monkey do. As more people in management positions quit, the idea of quitting becomes more apparent as an option for other managers.

What this means for the future of work

Data suggests that quits among management aren’t just a flash in the pan, and will likely continue for some time. Deloitte recently found that nearly 70 percent of the C-suite are seriously considering quitting for a job that better supports their well-being, compared with 57 for other employees. Research from Humu shows that the attrition risk for managers is two times higher than for non-managers — something that hadn’t been the case in years prior.

This could become a situation that feeds into itself.

When one manager quits, another is left picking up the slack, which could further frustrate them and potentially lead them to quit. This could cause their workers, left without adequate management that’s able to hire for unfilled positions, to leave as well, and that makes the remaining manager’s job even more difficult. Additionally, shortfalls could force companies to promote or hire people into those positions who aren’t qualified, further exacerbating the situation.

“There’s this difficulty we’re seeing in matching potential employees to roles that fit, and the managers are the ones who are primarily responsible for creating those matches,” Luke Pardue, an economist at Gusto, said. “So when they leave and the knowledge they have of the business and these roles disappears with them, we’ll likely see this struggle to find good matches continue and the number of vacancies increase.”

In other words, management quitting could make the Great Resignation worse.

It’s also not appealing to prospective job candidates not to know who their boss will be. As Fuller, the Harvard Business School professor, put it, “Would a baseball player sign with a team where you didn’t know who the manager was going to be?”

That uncertainty isn’t attractive to candidates with options. “For all I know, they’ll hire the biggest jerk on two legs,” Fuller said.

Of course, what an economic downturn means for all this is so far unclear. People, of course, don’t necessarily make life decisions based on a looming recession, but rather tend to act like the current situation is a predictor of the future.

What we do know is that managers are an important part of a company’s functioning, and they require a nuanced skill set like real-time judgment and people skills that can be tough to suss out on paper. And their ability to do so can have rippling effects on the company and employees alike.

At this point, the Great Resignation has built up so much momentum, it’s become a force unto itself. What’s not clear is how long it will take to meaningfully slow down


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